CMU president: Additional growth depends on community support

Tim Foster, President, CMU
Tim Foster, President, CMU

Phil Castle, The Business Times

While Colorado Mesa University has experienced success in growing student enrollment, academic programs and  physical facilities, CMU President Tim Foster believes additional growth will depend to an even greater extent to community support.

“That is going to be absolutely critical to us,” Foster said during a presentation at a quarterly membership meeting of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

That’s why Foster said he has high hopes for CMU 20,000, an initiative of the chamber and CMU to increase enrollment to 15,000 while enlisting the assistance of 5,000 supporters.

Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, said four committees have been established to take on various efforts, among them student recruitment, community and government engagement and increasing the visibility of Grand Junction as a college town.

Other ideas are welcome in what Schwenke said will be a multi-prong, multi-year effort.

The overall goal, Schwenke said, is to promote the additional growth of CMU and an institution that not only contributes an estimated $450 million annually to the regional economy, but also plays an important role in developing the workforce.

Foster said enrollment at CMU has increased nearly 48 percent over the past five years to 11,000. That gain has been an exception to what he said was a rule of smaller growth at other higher education institutions in Colorado and an average increase statewide of 8.4 percent.

Meanwhile, CMU has added to the academic and degree programs the university offers. Foster said many of the new programs are geared toward occupations and careers in high demand, including health care programs that train physician assistants and physical and occupational therapists. That means job prospects are good for graduates, he said. “All of them are going to get jobs.”

CMU continues to expand its physical facilities as well, Foster said. A new health sciences center located in a renovated building that once housed Community Hospital is set to open in August. “It’s going to be fantastic,” Foster said, and will add to what he said is already the best nursing program in Colorado.

Construction is scheduled for completion late this year on a new building housing a growing engineer program at CMU as well as the John McConnell Science Center, he added.

Growth has helped CMU pursue its mission of providing educational opportunities to students in Western Colorado and increasing the educational attainment level in the region, Foster said.

Those levels remain low in some areas, however. In Mesa County School District 51, about 53 percent of high school graduates are enrolled in higher education within a year of graduation.

Given the difference in employment opportunities and earnings between those with college degrees and those with only high school diplomas, that proportion is “disturbing,” Foster said.

CMU has joined with District 51 in a program in which CMU will hire a total of four college and career counselors to work in local high schools and encourage students to pursue further education, he said.

While CMU has experienced growth, the university still faces the same challenges businesses face, Foster said. “What you all face, we all face.”

That includes increased competition for students not only from state universities and colleges, but also a growing number of private institutions, he said.

State funding for higher education continues to shrink and could dwindle to nothing in as little as five years, he said. Colorado used to cover about two-thirds of the cost of higher education, while a student covered the remaining third. Those proportions since have reversed, he said.

CMU has succeeded on the strength of what Foster said has been “tremendous” community support. But additional support will be required moving forward, he said. “We need your help.”

For more information about participating in the CMU 20,000 initiative, visit www.CMU20000.com.